How Light Affects Sleep

light on in bedroom

You’ve probably heard people who work late night shifts in hospitals, fire stations, restaurants, or on the road protecting our streets talk about how light during the day has a negative impact on their ability to get a decent amount of restful sleep. But, did you know there is a real reason behind it? It’s not merely a preference for darkness that’s robbing them of the recuperative sleep they need in order to wake up refreshed and ready to face the day. But why does light have such a profound impact on sleep and what can people who work these necessary late shifts do to get the kind of sleep they need?

Why Does Light Negatively Impact Sleep?

“In the presence of light, your brain will not produce melatonin,” says Dr. Michael Breus, PhD, Sleep Specialist: On the surface that doesn’t seem like such a profoundly negative thing. However, melatonin is one of the vital hormones that plays a significant role in helping people not only fall asleep but also to remain asleep throughout the night. If a room has too much light, that makes things much more difficult for anyone looking to get a proper amount of sleep.

In addition to the issue of melatonin production, the presence of light also works to influence our internal clocks (at least according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School), so that it changes our sleep patterns. People who work during the night and attempt to sleep during the day are constantly exposed to sunlight streaming in through windows and telling their bodies that it’s time to be awake. It is centuries of evolutionary conditioning telling us that daylight signals time to wake up that must be overcome rather than the 100 or so years that we’ve had the electric light bulb telling us that we must wake up and be productive people.

using computer tablet in bed

How do You Reduce Light for Better Sleep?

Not everyone who works shifts or suffers from insomnia at night has the ability to sleep in a room with zero light. There are, however, small things you can do that will limit the amount of light coming into the room, even during daylight hours, so you can get sleep unimpeded by the brightness of light. These are some of the changes you can make that will have a huge impact on the quality and quantity of sleep you get.

  • Invest in low wattage light bulbs for your bedside tables. Dr. Breus recommends 40 watt bulbs.
  • Install dimmers for your overhead light switch. It isn’t solely about the moment you turn in for the night. It’s about creating a low light atmosphere for at least an hour prior to going to sleep. This allows your mind to register that it’s time to prepare for sleep.
  • Invest in blackout curtains for your window if there are a lot of outside lights nearby or if you need to sleep during daytime hours. The more light you can shut out, the faster you’ll be able to go to sleep and the longer you’ll be able to stay asleep. Even our Olympic athletes have used blackout curtains to get more quality shut eye. If blackout curtains don’t fit into your budget, at the very least consider using an eye mask to block out light.
  • Turn off electronics (cell phones, computers, tablets, etc.) with self-luminous displays. Research suggests that this type of light, which can imitate sunlight, can impact both your quantity and quality of sleep.

If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, or during the day, consider making small changes such as these and turning off overhead lights, televisions, and bedside lamps before turning in for the evening. It could make a world of difference.

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